Warning about food security complacency

By Shannon Beattie
December 13 2020 - 11:00pm
UWA professor Kadambot Siddique (left) and Dr Graeme Robertson who presented a lecture on food security in WA last month. Photo by The UWA Institute of Agriculture.

WESTERN Australia is food secure but relies on a large proportion of its desired food being imported across long distances, while climate change is a medium to long-term threat to the State's agriculture production.

They were the key messages from a lecture given by Graeme Robertson on food security and agriculture in WA, held at the University of Western Australia (UWA) last month.

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Australia is ranked 10 out of 113 countries in The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Global Food Security index.

The EIU considers food security in the broadest sense and ranked Australia behind Singapore, Ireland, the United States and the Scandinavian countries.

Dr Robertson said Australia lost ranking because of comparatively lower public expenditure on agriculture research and development and on its Food Nutritional Standards.

"Any walk around a WA supermarket, looking at the shelves, the customers and their basket would indicate that we do have plenty of food, but much is nutritionally suspect," Dr Robertson said.

"We often hear people talk about WA feeding a hungry world, which is true - a large proportion of the world has less food than it needs and the estimates are that COVID-19 has significantly increased food insecurity.

"However, while we do export significant food, mainly grains and some meat, our production is a very small proportion of the world's food supply."

WA produces between 0.7 and 1.3 per cent of the world's wheat, 1-2pc of its canola and 2pc of its barley.

It also produces about 5pc of the world's wool, but only a very small proportion of beef, dairy and chicken meat and fruit and vegetables.

In total, WA produces enough calories to feed about 10 million people, compared to a world population of 7.8 billion, which means the State can feed 0.13pc of the world's population.

Regardless, agriculture in WA is an important component of the economy and Australia is one of the few countries that can reliably export surpluses of grains which is very important to net importers.

Dr Robertson said up to 90pc of wheat, barley, canola and oats are exported.

"As the grain from any harvest is usually marketed over the following year, there is always a secure supply of grains available in WA for human consumption and animal feeds and in this context we are food secure," he said.

"A tour of any supermarket, past the frozen prepared foods, frozen vegetables, jars or packets of sauces, jams or dressings, noodles, pasta, cake mixes, bread mixes, biscuits, sugar, coffee, tea, etc., nothing on the shelves is from WA.

"It is only a little better when we get to the fresh food sections - most of the beef and all of the lamb, some of the chicken, the pork, but not the ham, none of the turkey or duck appear to be locally sourced.

"The fruit and vegetables are similar - many are local, particularly where our biosecurity limits imports from overseas or interstate, but many fruit and vegetable lines are imported."

In 2020 there were two disruptions to the supply chain with bushfires on the Nullarbor closing the only, currently feasible truck route to Perth, the Eyre Highway, for 12 days in January which started to affect supermarket supplies.

COVID-19 also resulted in shortages or absence of some products as production facilities and distribution centres were affected.

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"No-one starved, but it was a reminder that relying on food being shifted 3000 kilometres and with in-State storage limited to less than a week for many products, it is a vulnerable food security situation," Dr Robertson said.

"Unfortunately, economies of scale, concentration of food manufacturing businesses, supermarkets' national supply arrangements and the demand for all year supplies have hollowed out the WA food production industry.

"The absence of local production certainly adds food miles and associated carbon dioxide emissions and may add cost.

"It is also vulnerable to national disruption to fuel supplies."

An important food security issue in WA is the utilisation of food - on average we consume far too much of it, plus about 40pc of the food in the domestic supply chain is wasted.

The Eyre Highway is less likely to be disrupted for lengthy periods than the Arabian Gulf, so it is not likely that food insecurity will be an existential threat in the foreseeable future.

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Overall, the disruption of these supply chains by road closures will only be for short periods and despite the low levels of in-State reserves, food will be available.

However, the reliance on road transport and hence fuel is a medium-term risk as regional conflict could disrupt the importation of fuel.

Despite that, WA should not be complacent as there are other issues that will affect the ag industry.

The South West is a global hotspot for climate change and the impacts have already been witnessed.

Dr Robertson said unfortunately the change would be ongoing and the impact would continue to become more severe for the foreseeable future.

"A recently published Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO report indicated average temperatures have increased by more than 1.44 degrees since 1910," he said.

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"April to October rainfall has declined by 16pc since 1970 and 12pc since the late 1990s, while May to June rainfall has declined by 20pc since the 1970s.

"Associated with these changes has been a decrease in the frequency of higher winter rainfall years and an increase in the frequency of drier winters."

The declining research and development capacity within the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) over recent years has the agricultural community in WA debating whether there is adequate resources left to ensure industry sustainability.

However, there is now significant R&D capacity across the three universities - Murdoch, Curtin and UWA - more than there ever was in the State department.

Dr Robertson said each of the universities had extensive linkages and collaborations with national and international researchers and centres.

"I am confident that the resources and capacity for agriculture R&D in WA is larger than it has ever been, however it is very ephemeral in nature," he said.

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"Most of the researchers are on term contracts and the system responds to the priorities and agenda of industry research and development corporations.

"The university's participation in agricultural research is dependent on them being able to competitively access available funding - most of this is three year projects, some five and there are occasionally 10-year investments."

Continuing agriculture in the face of expected impacts on temperature, rainfall and water availability will require a very significant planning and R&D response.

Dr Robertson said the government, along with industry, would need to take a leading role in developing the strategy and the options, with a more collaborative model for R&D planning and investment essential for the continuity of food security in WA.

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